Curtain Call in the Theater District

Block E redevelopment probably means saving one historic theater and destroying another. The question is which will be left standing: the Shubert or the Mann?

          It was something of a battle of the titans at the Minneapolis City Council last week--two big developers fighting over the right to turn a chunk of downtown into an "urban entertainment center" with bells, whistles, and lots of theme restaurants. Brookfield LePage, a veteran of the development craze of the late 1980s, was proposing a one-and-a-half-block remake of Hennepin Avenue between Sixth and Eighth Streets; the plan included a hotel, an office tower, a multiplex cinema, and a food court. Loon State Ventures, a partnership that includes Valleyfair designer David Sherman, had grand plans for a three-block megacenter on the order of L.A.'s Citywalk, complete with a "tower of lights" and a three-story electronic billboard.

          What neither of the developers--or, for that matter, the City Council members charged with choosing a plan--talked about much was some historic real estate sitting in the way of their projects. To officials, the Shubert and the Mann Theaters are essentially headaches, and it appears that only one of them, at best, will be saved. The result is a bitter behind-the-scenes battle between two more groups of developers, this time over the right to revamp and refigure history.

          Along with the Orpheum and the State Theaters, the Shubert and the Mann are the last of what remains of an earlier "urban entertainment center." In the 1920s, Hennepin Avenue had something like 25 playhouses, featuring vaudeville shows, musicals, sequins, and bare legs. Then the Depression hit, and the war; by the time most people could afford to go out again, suburban drive-ins were the big attraction. A few of the Hennepin Avenue theaters added projection booths and hung on for a while. By the 1980s they were all closed, and many had been demolished.

          The Orpheum and the State were the lucky ones; they've been restored at a cost of more than $20 million, and over the past few years have featured attractions like Miss Saigon, Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, and the Chippendale dancers. Last year saw the addition of Hey City Stage, which the city lured to the former Hirshfield's building in a desperate bid to keep an adult-entertainment entrepreneur at bay.

          Three theaters, of course, don't make much of a district, especially when they're perched precariously on the edge of what downtown promoters have referred to as the "invisible fence" between the "good" side of downtown (Target Center and the nearby ring of trendy bars and restaurants) and the grittier reaches of Hennepin Avenue. So, David Ulrich and Ron Tolliver figured what was good for the Orpheum, the State, and Hey City should be good for the Shubert. Calling themselves RoDa Productions, they have been pushing a plan to turn the oldest remaining playhouse into the avenue's next attraction--a cross between an oversized community theater and a full-fledged professional stage.

          There's one big problem, though: The Shubert is the only building on an otherwise empty Block E, and the developers the city is angling for don't like to work around old structures. Loon State Ventures has expressed some interest in saving the Shubert, but has been careful not to make any commitments. And on Brookfield LePage's plans, the Shubert figures only as decoration: Its facade might be moved to dress up the project's Hennepin Avenue side.

          Brookfield's plans, however, aren't entirely devoid of theater options. The company so far does not propose to demolish the Mann, half a block over from the Shubert. Originally built as the Pantages Theater in 1916, the Mann has been closed since 1983 and looks decidedly uninspiring. (Its front door is the long storefront on the Hennepin Ave. side of the block that contains the First Avenue club.) An owner seeking a more "modern" look in the 1960s put a false ceiling over the elaborate plasterwork, covered the bird's-eye maple paneling with drywall, and painted a 20-by-30-foot stained-glass skylight black. But, says Fred Krohn, all that could be undone with relative ease.

          Krohn has a claim to some expertise when it comes to old theaters. He's the president of Heritage Theatre Group (HTG), the for-profit company the city has hired to operate the State and Orpheum theaters. He also heads Theatre Live!, a nonprofit that books Broadway shows on the two stages. Over the past few years, Krohn has built his position into a powerful one at the nexus of theater, business, and downtown boosterism. Among his associates are Lee Lynch of Carmichael Lynch Advertising, who sits on the boards of HTG and Theatre Live! and also owns substantial chunks of real estate in the theater district. Another is James Binger, the super-rich local executive who runs Jujamcyn Theaters.

          Not all Krohn's theater business dealings have gone smoothly. Early during his tenure managing the State and the Orpheum, a state investigation revealed that he'd overpaid himself almost $90,000 in fees drawn from theater accounts; officials also noted that he had not been keeping a general ledger and was commingling funds from various accounts. Krohn--who once worked in the state auditor's office--protested that too many accounting rules would "strangle theater"; he did pay back the money, though, and officials say his bookkeeping has not been a cause for concern recently.

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